Alation Raises the Bar for Data Catalogs
by Ron Powell
Originally published January 29, 2019
Aaron, could you give us a little background of how you got to where you are today and your responsibilities at Alation?
Aaron Kalb: I have been interested in how to make it easier and easier for human beings to use computers that are capable of solving really hard problems without needing special training or learning a computer language. This started with my research at Stanford, through Apple where I worked on Siri trying to make an English-in/answers-out interface for mundane questions such as where is the nearest gas station or what is the weather outside. The goal with Alation was to take that Siri concept and really easy-to-use interface for answering those basic day-in-the-life questions to answering the really big questions that corporations, organizations and large enterprises are asking.
Satyen Sangani, our CEO, approached me. He was coming out of Oracle where he observed people who would buy $1 million worth of database software and then spend $5 million with consultants trying to make it accessible. We thought about how we could lower that barrier to entry and enable people to get so much more value out of that data. What if asking a question of the database was as easy as asking Siri about the weather? We came together to tackle that problem – making data really accessible and the enterprises more data-driven.
Alation continues to raise the bar for data catalogs and was recently recognized by Gartner for better data management and by Forrester for machine-learning for data catalogs. Could you comment on that?
Aaron Kalb: We’re super-excited that the industry now recognizes that data catalogs are a really impactful piece of the data space. Before we even knew to call what we were doing a data catalog, we knew that a tool that helps people to find, understand and trust data to make better decisions was essential and was the next level in unlocking the potential of data.
Our forward-thinking customers – we had customers like eBay before we even launched – knew this as well. But what has happened recently is that Gartner has come out and said this is an essential component. Forrester said data catalogs are a category unto themselves, and Alation was the first. We now see other players in this space developing their own data catalogs. We’re really happy to be leading and spearheading this charge to organize data and make it valuable for the end user.
A key for the enterprise is collaboration, and a data catalog seems to be the hub for this data collaboration. Could you talk about how your customers are working with it?
Aaron Kalb: What we’ve seen historically is that individuals love the data catalog because it lets them do analysis quickly and correctly. Previously – you can read all about this from Gartner and others – individual data analysts would spend 80 percent or more of their time just scrounging for the right data. It was a slow and arduous process. And, even after they did an analysis, often the numbers would be completely wrong or disagree with an analysis somebody else did. It was a really stressful position that people were in. Individuals love that we can help them find, understand and trust data to do the analysis faster. And then for organizations, it’s the ability for different people, teams and departments to collaborate and build on this work which again helps with accuracy and efficiency at a larger scale.
So it’s been really exciting for Alation. We’ve had customers grow to literally thousands of active users in a given time span. What’s happening now, as well, is that our customers are coming to us and saying that they’d like to supplement the grassroots engagement that they have by helping them drive some of their enterprise-wide initiatives around data governance and data management. We’re really excited that is happening organically because when you try to push something onto people, it can often backfire. But when they actually ask for it, it is a chance to really drive engagement and impact.
For some of your large enterprise customers, are they working across time zones with the data catalog?
Aaron Kalb: One thing that a catalog does is reduce the need for everyone hopping on the phone or into a meeting to get things done. We have a customer that literally is working around the clock. They have a team in the U.S., one in Philippines and one in Europe. They can even hand off an analysis with all the relevant context to be that much more efficient in their work.
You recently announced TrustCheck, which really revolutionizes the data catalog. Can you go into how your customers are using it?
Aaron Kalb: So TrustCheck is basically spell check for your data. If you are working in Microsoft Word or another word processor and you make a little typo, it will underline the word in red and suggest what you should put instead so that you have everything correctly spelled. Imagine the same thing when you’re writing a SQL query and you mention a table or a column that for whatever reason isn’t good to use. Maybe a column is calculated incorrectly or maybe the table is stale – hasn’t been updated in a while or has expired. We’ll highlight that part of the query in a bright color so you can’t miss it and suggest using a different table instead of that table or using a different calculation than the one you used. It basically guides you to the right answer.
Another way users experience this is a bit like turn-by-turn directions in your car navigation, taking that map of the data – which is the catalog – and saying turn left at the light. Here are the joins you should use. It really unlocks what’s in the catalog and puts it into practice.
The thing is that whatever you’re working on, whatever kind of analysis or whatever vertical you’re in, if you use the wrong data in the wrong way, you’ll get the wrong answer. Across all our different customers, it’s about getting the right answer faster whether they are writing SQL or are a less technical user who is looking at visualizations in Tableau or doing dashboarding with Salesforce Einstein Analytics. Our goal with all of our partners, with many BI tools, and with others is to say wherever you are, let’s put a big green check on all of the most trustworthy content and a big red X on everything that can’t be trusted so that when people are making business decisions, they’re doing the right thing.
From a return-on-investment perspective, do you have any feedback from customers quantifying how much they’ve saved?
Aaron Kalb: That’s a great question. This can be hard to quantify, but the effects can be really huge. For example, eBay told us we cut down by more than 75% how long it takes them to onboard a new analyst coming in to be able to reach productivity. Obviously, these people are paid a lot of money. It’s a big win there.
But with TrustCheck, the value can be even bigger. For example, what if the data seems to say you should do option A instead of option B, but it’s because of a problem in the underlying data. It’s not that the world is that way. It’s just that the dashboard looks that way. If we can prevent you from choosing the wrong option and guide you to make the right decisions, it could be worth millions of dollars.
One thing I’ve been super excited about is a piece Pfizer had in the Wall Street Journal in which they mentioned Alation. Pfizer talked about how they’re able to create diagnostics and treatments for rare diseases using the data infrastructure that Alation’s a part of that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to invest in. That’s the biggest bottom line we can get excited about – potentially saving lives because of better data at the right time.
What are your customers looking for and what are Alation's goals to help your customers?
Aaron Kalb: There are a few trends. Our customers are certainly looking to take the grassroots engagement they’re already seeing among their user bases and go to the enterprise-wide solutions that involve curation, governance and data management as well.
We also are looking to go to a broader and broader user base. We already have really rich, deep adoption among data people – data analysts, data scientists and business analysts. We also have some customers where product managers, marketers and people in finance are using Alation. But our goal is to really lower that bar so a wider and wider range of less technical people can get to data really easily. Again, it’s just like working with Siri or Alexa: How do you speak your own language and still get data value?
Can you provide us with some additional customer examples?
Aaron Kalb: One of our values at Alation is that we measure our success by customer impact. What’s really exciting is that we have seen customers adopt Alation’s data catalog across basically every vertical and in every part of the globe right now. It ranges from Pfizer and other big pharma companies to companies in healthcare to Munich Re – the biggest reinsurer in Europe. It has also been adopted by Safeway/Albertsons here in the states and a number of other retailers both domestically and abroad. In addition, Salesforce is not only a partner with our Einstein analytics integration, but is also a big customer that is going to be rolling out Alation to thousands of seats.
Whether its tech, healthcare, retail, insurance or any vertical you can imagine, in Europe, increasingly in Asia, and certainly in the U.S. and North America, we are excited to see people already buying data catalogs from Alation.
We think this represents that data is the new oil. Every company has data. Every company needs a data catalog, and we’re excited to try to help them all.
Can you give us a glimpse into the future and what is next for Alation?
Aaron Kalb: Absolutely. Our goal is to continue growing, to provide our current offering to more and more companies around the globe, hit more and more users within each company, and to make Alation easier and easier to use. For data, we will continue to make it easier and easier to integrate into a day-in-the-life, whether you’re a technical data scientist or data analyst, or somebody who is just trying to be data informed in your business.
Thank you for spending time with me today, Aaron.
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